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The Small, White Elephant in the Room

posted on November 26th, 2008 by jay
Now Playing: Fallout 2

Every month I get game magazines with beautiful characters from HD games splashed across their covers. The latest EGM features the Watchmen, the newest Edge details Little Big Planet and Game Developer dives into downloadable XBLA game The Age of Booty. Roundtable discussions in these magazines with developers and producers invariably focus on HD games and the challenge of creating and bringing them to market.

If you don’t follow the monthly NPD report you probably would have no idea that Nintendo has a significant lead in the American market. While the old guard of gaming press has been slow to downright resistant in accepting the Wii, the blame for the lack of Wii game coverage rests almost entirely on publishers. EGM has a tough time doing a cover story on non-existent games, and, while Babiez Party may be better than Mass Effect, diapers don’t look good on front pages.

No one can accuse the team that created the Car Vault of a lack of effort.

The lack of effort third party publishers (and Nintendo – see Animal Crossing) have put into making Wii games has been written about many times, by seemingly objective observers and fanboys alike. I have identified three major theories that analysts use to explain the current state of the console industry.

The first argument goes like this – The combined PS3, 360, and PC install base is larger than that of the Wii and so making cross platform HD games allows publishers to target a larger market. This argument rings true when two assumptions are made. The first is that cross platform PC/Wii games will not or can not exist. The second assumption is that time will stop moving forward.

Games like Strong Bad and World of Goo demonstrate that the Wii remote and mouse control are actually decent analogs. If producers choose to make cross-platform Wii and PC games we can remove PC games from the argument – the platform doesn’t necessarily support either HD or Wii gaming.

This leaves us with the march of time. In the states, HD gaming is roughly 4 million systems ahead of the Wii. The gap is around 3 million worldwide. Anyone with a sheet of graph paper is capable of working out the truth that the Wii will surpass combined PS3 and 360 sales. When is the only question. Publishers are hoping it takes a while, say until the minute before the XBox 9000 and PS4 are released.

Cross-platform Wii/PC games can not only exist, they can be awesome.

There is a subset of debates within the HD versus Wii argument. They range from “Nintendo sold 30 million consoles to people who have never played a video game” to “Wii owners don’t buy or play games.” Monthly sales data puts an end to most of these pretty quickly but they are still repeated ad nauseum, and likely believed by many publishers.

The second possible explanation for the lack of Wii support lies in the hands of the developers. However you personally define the term gamer, it is not a secret that many people in the industry associate power with progress. Better graphics, crisper sound and larger levels are the stuff dreams are made of for many artists, programmers, and designers. Until we reach a point where technology is irrelevant and technique is everything, games will be made by tech enthusiasts.

The Wii’s lack of computational power simply bores many developers. Some say more horsepower allows them to better realize their creative vision, others simply enjoy the challenge of pushing the newest and bestest technology to the limit. (Oddly enough, working with a new form of input does theoretically offer significant design challenges, despite many developers reluctance to work on the Wii. But then remember this is an industry where developers call systems they dislike a “virus”.)

Somewhere in Japan a meeting was held and it was decreed that Wii owners want spin offs of good series. Soul Calibur: Legends, Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles, Samurai Warriors: Katana, Dragon Quest: Swords and Castlevania: Judgment were thus born.

My final theory to explain why the Wii is everywhere but in development studio offices is perhaps the most conspiratorial. It is simply this – publishers are still hoping Nintendo just goes away. When the Genesis arrived many publishers jumped ship to support Sega despite the tight grip the NES had on the market. The PS1 gained significant support despite the strength of the SNES and even though it was Sony’s first attempt at a console. So what’s going on with the Wii – why are publishers who have shown they are capable of adaptation refusing to budge?

Many publishers grew accustomed to supporting Sony and are still scratching their heads over the PS3. Analysts are only now beginning to accept the reality that Sony isn’t going to once again dominate a generation of consoles and I’d wager many board members at various publishers still haven’t come to terms with this.

Beyond the Wii being a shift from Sony, it is a shift from business as usual. The template for handling new consoles has been around for generations and publishers aren’t about to throw it away. More often than not, the template calls for the same game released last year with more enemies, more locations, more voice acting, and more points of articulation in character models. Instead of rethinking old ideas, publishers seek to pretend it’s business as usual while throwing scraps Nintendo’s way.

Let us take a look at Red Steel and Resident Evil 4 and Umbrella Chronicles. The former was a mediocre launch title that sold over a million copies. It’s launch status surely helped sales but there are over 30 million more Wii owners now. In what bizarre world would the publisher of a million seller not announce a sequel? Both Resident Evil games for the Wii have passed the million mark. This has emboldened Capcom to rerelease Resident Evil Zero in Japan and give us a port of Dead Rising.

After a mediocre but pretty second attempt at wooing Wii owners, Konami has mostly given up. At least Kororinpa 2 should be good.

Wii owners have shown that they will support some core games, like the owners of all consoles (Okami bombed on the PS2 – not all good games will find a market). Yet publishers with money making core games refuse to follow up with much more than ports and minigame fests. What is going on here? Can it really be that publishers are still hoping every night that Nintendo just goes away?

It seems that way to me. Publishers had no problem shifting resources from the presumed champion the PS3 to the 360 as sales figures came in, yet Wii support is still infinitesimal. Square-Enix recently went on record as anticipating Xbox sales to continue to climb in Japan. Translation – We would rather support the system that may pick up than the one miles ahead of its nearest competition.

There is the old, tired idea that no one stands a chance when competing with Nintendo. Unfortunately for publishers, whatever console they release games for they are at least indirectly competing with Nintendo. The company is massive – bigger than all of Sony – and their influence is felt on gaming as a whole, despite claims the Wii and DS are not competing with any other systems.

Refining this idea to “publishers do not want to compete directly with Nintendo” still doesn’t make it more than a weak cop out. The first step toward proving Nintendo is some sort of impervious, infallible band of angels is to attempt to compete. Third parties have tried nothing and they are all out of ideas.

No More Heroes didn’t shatter any sales records, but it sold better than any of the designer’s previous games. Blueberry cheese brownie!

It is possible that the depressing truth of the matter is Ubisoft will make more money publishing Rayman Raving Rabbids Ravenously Rape Rapping Rats than Red Steel 2. On a company by company basis the strategy of releasing games in a proven genre makes sense but when examining the bigger picture the lunacy is apparent. Every large and small publishing house releasing party games will oversaturate the market and leave many empty handed.

Some are predicting that a new wave of developers and publishers will find success in vacant Wii markets by side stepping (hang gliding over? inner tubing past? snorkeling under?) the flood of mediocre family fare. The poster children for the move into this market are the not-so-tiny Sega and the smaller Marvelous. Sega is hoping their new House of the Dead, the Conduit, and Platinum Game’s MadWorld gain the attention of those who enjoyed Resident Evil 4 and are waiting for more mature (read: bloody) gaming. They’re also publishing the promising and innovative party game Let’s Tap (note to Ubisoft – it is actually possible to make a game both accessible and good).

Marvelous may be leading the way for a transformation by small publishers into significant players with their robust Wii support. 2D action game Muramasa, strategy sim Little King Story, farming/fighting game Rune Factory Frontier and RPG Arc Rise Fantasia are all slated for the Wii to be published, at least in Japan, by Marvelous. If they play their cards right, and if these games are actually good, Marvelous may propel themselves to big publisher within this single generation.

Arc Rise Fantasia may end up being just another generic JRPG, but the Wii could use a few of those.

Whether or not Sega and Marvelous capitalize on the huge Wii install base, discerning gamers still exist and are still waiting for more titles by A teams. The ever growing system sales and the highest software sales of any console should be enough to entice publishers to release good games on the system. Whether the market adjusts to reality is yet to be seen, but the money is there to be made if only someone is willing to take a risk. Fortune favors the bold.

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  1. Pingback: GoNintendo » Blog Archive » Why does the Wii lack quality third-party efforts?- What are you waiting for? on December 4, 2008

15 Comments

  1. christian said on November 27, 2008:

    The one advantage devs have when transferring effort from, say, PS3 to 360, is that despite different architectures, they’re both using HD textures and many of the same engines. So whatever work someone ends up doing in Maya or 3DS Max will be useful on both. So moving resources to the Wii will indeed take longer, and the effects would not be noticeable immediately. The wii is two years old now though, and proved its sales worthiness long ago. If this theory is true, the Wii should see some upward swing by next year. If not, then the idea is moot and it becomes likely that no one was transferring focus to it.

    I’m not convinced of anything yet, but this is the theory I would like to test. No one believed in the DS beating out the PSP, but sooner or later it did. Software was cheaper to make, no one needed the best graphics on the handheld, and touchscreen support was not mandatory. Eventually its price and simplicity won the day. I feel this does not work in the console realm because it is an arena where visuals are that much more important. Making Wii games in this economy would be cheaper, faster, and reach a large audience. I think everyone may know that, and simply not care, kind of like how the major auto makers took forever to scale back production of trucks and SUVs and still haven’t put more than a half assed effort into alternate fuel machines. Everyone knows what will sell, but some industries find some strange use in proving who has the biggest cock, no matter what losses they entail.

    I’m not sure what the pundits will say about the Wii at the end of its life, but failure would be a very poor thing to say. It has and probably will continue to make Nintendo retarded amounts of money, and that’s all that matters regardless of what library it ends up with. On the bright side, I still look at the Wii as an experiment that managed to sell godly amounts. When the next version comes along, I hope it will lead to even better motion control and maybe advanced haptics. I may not play too much Wii these days, but I’m not stupid enough to think that this is one stop. This is the first step on a long transition. Thankfully the big N has the warchest to keep it going now.

  2. DeeMer said on November 28, 2008:

    There are some articles I’ve been reading recently, by a guy named Sean Malstrom. He takes what you two have been saying an really refines it and explains it in the terms of Nintendo’s “Blue Ocean” and “Disruption” stategies.

    http://malstrom.50webs.com/
    http://seanmalstrom.wordpress.com/

    I think they’re pretty good reads.

  3. pat said on December 2, 2008:

    very interesting article.

    i know its boring, cop-out answer but i really do think its a combination of several things you mention. i sorta “feel” (as opposed to know, or have any evidence for) that there is paltry evidence that big third party games would sell well on the wii. there is something of a chicken or a egg problem (pubs dont put big games out on wii and as a result there is no evidence they would sell) but red steel and no more heroes (best wii game) are a solid foundation for a counterargument. there is also the problem with the time it takes to retool a developer and publisher to work on a new system. if a lot of these guys hitched their wagons to sony’s star and have since reconsidered, we may be just now starting to see the evidence. and i definitely think there are devs that only want to work on the most powerful software available. its not everyone, and its not a wise business decision (see: technology overshooting its users) but its a contributing factor.

    and malstrom’s article on birdmen belongs in the annals of gaming literature somewhere, but much of the rest of his stuff is significantly weaker.

  4. Christian said on December 2, 2008:

    I thought we discussed Malstrom’s stuff before. Or was that just a discussion between me and Jay?

  5. pat said on December 2, 2008:

    i think several of us have had discussions about him offline but i dont think we have covered him on vl. i could be wrong though.

  6. DeeMer said on December 3, 2008:

    If you did, I must have missed it. I just found out about the guy myself.

  7. j-dude said on December 4, 2008:

    — It is simply this – publishers are still hoping Nintendo just goes away

    That is so true. I’ve seen companies do this from day 1.

  8. Spyder Mayhem said on December 4, 2008:

    Nintendo gets some of the blame. Nintendo doesn’t seem to be courting publishers.

    When you spend a lot of time and effort making a lightsaber-fighting game for the Wii, but find youself hampered by the Wii’s lack of motion sensitivity, it might be nice to find out about the coming-soon increased sensitivty before the press does. And when that increased sensitivity is released at almost the same time as your game but your game doesn’t support it because you weren’t told of its development, it might make you turn away from the system.

  9. jay said on December 5, 2008:

    You’re right but at least in this case I think it’s mostly on Lucas’s feet. Dragon Quest Swords was a similar concept, came out over a year before the Duel game and was made by a C developer that only makes console Pokemon coliseum games and yet it got better reviews.

    Still, the light saber game is a good example of neither side trying and the player losing.

  10. Max said on December 6, 2008:

    I think it’s a boredom factor all right – but I think the boredom is not so much with lacklustre hardware, as it is with the type of games that Wii has chosen to be the platform for. In simple terms – developers don’t want to make kids games. Most devs are twenty and thirty somethings, and want to make games about things that are interesting to THEM. That spells out words like “realistic”, “aggressive”, “mature” – which equals the target audience of the 360 and PS3, not the Wii. It takes a very special kind of adult to want to make games for kids, and most developers simply yawn at the idea of making kid-friendly entertainment when they can make Gears of War instead.

  11. christian said on December 7, 2008:

    Max, that assumes that Wii games have to be made to fit to kids. They could put a lot of things on there, but the bottom line is that a lot of games of all types aren’t selling well.

    Also, my definition of Mature is not equal to Gears of War (which I love, for entirely other reasons).

  12. Shota said on December 7, 2008:

    Wii games are for kids in the same way that the Hobbit and Wall-E are kids literature. Which is to say not at all. How shallow of developers, and many players, to not be able to look past appearances.

  13. Max said on December 7, 2008:

    I disagree. The Hobbit IS kid’s literature; it’s Lord of the Ring that isn’t. Shallow or not, perception is everything and nowadays the Wii is perceived to be a console primarily targeted at children and casual gamers. This is FACT, accepted among most hardcore gamers, and developers, and even kids themselves (my co-worker was just telling me about his 8-year old son complaining to him that “Wii is for babies”). We could argue whether this fact is undeserved, unfair, or unfortunate, but that’s irrelevant. Nintendo intentionally positioned themselves this way to win market share – which they succeeded at. Now the only developers that still try to make “grown-up” games for the Wii are doing so primarily out of commercial reasons – i.e. because they are trying to squeeze extra bucks out of existing IP by doing quick ports, or because their uninspired crap game has too much quality competition on the PS3 and 360. The result? The Wii is now the best selling platform… for shovelware. Making money hand over fist in quantity, not quality.

  14. bruce said on December 8, 2008:

    I think what we’re seeing is just the perfect storm of ALL the factors mentioned in this article and thread conspiring together to keep us from getting “Alien Killer 11 : Nazi Orc’s Revenge” on the Wii.

    On Sony and Microsoft’s systems, the third party publishers don’t have to compete with established character driven franchises with dozens of millions of sales behind them from the first party publishers. Simply put, Sony and Microsoft are easier publishers to compete with than Nintendo. The old saw about “Nintendo makes consoles just to sell Nintendo games” really is true. And frankly when looking at the sales juggernaut that is Mario-branded-everything selling in the millions, I don’t blame publishers for pissing their pants at going up against Nintendo’s franchises. Add to that Nintendo’s traditional hubris about dealing with third party publishers, and it’s no wonder they don’t want to show up to the party. In a way this is unfortunate because I’ve seen games that are actually good, as good as or better than some of Nintendo’s own offerings on the Wii, get completely ignored because the kids just want to play “something with Mario in it” and the grandma who plays Wii Sports, well, why the hell exactly would she even know that Wario Land : Shake It exists?

    I can speak marginally to the “developers don’t want to make games for it” angle. Yes, there are developers out there who have visions for games that just cannot be realized on the Wii’s hardware. Their AI’s cannot be as complicated as they need them to be, their physics simulations cannot be as detailed as they need them to be, or maybe they have a gameplay idea that relies on a high fidelity fluid simulation requiring multiple cores to implement. Ultimately, I really do want these guys to be able to harness an ever increasing number of computing cycles to the service of interesting new game ideas. But if you’re just jamming lots of eye candy in instead of giving players something compelling, don’t piss and moan when your game doesn’t sell because you made a tech demo instead of a game.

    http://www.edge-online.com/news/pc-devs-shoot-themselves-in-foot

    I remember sitting at a job interview years ago on the cusp of the introduction of the PSP and DS game systems. While I expressed interest in the interface possibilities afforded by the DS the interviewer went on about how the PSP would dominate because of the size of its screen. We all know how that turned out.

    So I’m quite convinced there are both great game ideas out there that the Wii simply can’t power, and developers who can’t think of anything interesting to do with motion control beyond just making a breast jiggle simulator. Add everything together and we get, well, look at the Wii section next time you’re in Wal Mart.

    I’m hopeful that some of the megaton franchises shifting to the Wii will shake things up. Rumors of a real Dragon Quest and the incoming Monster Hunter may muscle Nintendo aside, at least for a time. But at least it will be obvious the potential is there for big franchises to do big things.

  15. Max said on December 9, 2008:

    The point about Nintendo being by far the best developer of Nintendo games is a good one – hadn’t really considered that before. I agree that not all is lost, but it will take someone with a serious creative genius AND ability to execute to re-establish the viability of 3rd party games on the Wii.

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